The 2022 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was awarded to Svante Pääbo “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominids and human evolution”. Foreign member of the Accademia dei Lincei, Pääbo sequenced the Neanderthal genome and discovered the extinct hominid known as Denisova’s man. The researcher, born in Stockholm in 1955, studied at Uppsala University, was a lecturer at the University of Munich and is the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Pääbo has obtained an honorary degree in numerous academies, and is a “son of art” in the Nobel category: his father, Sune K. Bergström, in fact, received the same recognition in 1982 for an important work on prostaglandins, molecules produced by the body and involved in numerous physiological functions.
Pääbo’s pioneering research allowed for to deepen the knowledge related to gene transfer occurred following the migration from Africa about 70 thousand years ago. This flow of genes, experts explain, has physiological relevance because it affects how the modern immune system reacts to infections. “Humanity has always been fascinated by the mystery of its origins – reads the press release issued by the Assembly on the occasion of the award ceremony – Svante Pääbo has achieved something apparently impossible by sequencing the Neanderthal genome. His research gave rise to a completely new scientific discipline: paleogenomics. His discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human ”.
Fascinated by the possibility of using modern genetics to study ancient DNA, Svante Pääbo faced numerous challenges to be able to analyze the genetic material of our ancestors. The researcher therefore decided to examine Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, which contains only part of the genetic information present in the cell, but is available in thousands of copies. Thanks to a cutting-edge approach, Pääbo was able to sequence a region of mitochondrial DNA from a bone finding belonging to an individual who lived 40,000 years ago.
Subsequently, Pääbo’s team made genetic sequencing more efficient, first publishing the Neanderthal genome sequence in 2010. Comparative analyzes showed that the most recent common ancestor of this species with Homo Sapiens dates back to around 800 thousand years ago.
Scientists also identified a previously unknown hominid called Denisova’s Man. The research of the Nobel 2022 gave rise to paleogenomics, a new discipline based on the investigation of ancient genetic material. “Pääbo’s discoveries have generated a new understanding of our evolutionary history – comment the members of the Assembly – thanks to the work of this brilliant researcher, we can now analyze how the archaic gene sequences of our ancestors influence the human genome and understand what makes us human “.
The echo of the announcement also reached Italy where the research group led by David Caramelli has to his credit several works in collaboration with Paabo. Fantastic news ”. Caramelli, head of the department of biology and laboratory of anthropology and molecular paleogenomics at the University of Florence, said. He was the pioneer of the studies we do too and the fact that this aspect has been recognized at this level gives me immense pleasure ”. “Together with Pääbo – he said – we have published several articles all linked to the study of human evolution. I am really very happy with this award. It is a recognition of our entire discipline. It is very nice to see that the work that has been done has been recognized in such a prestigious way “.
Valentina Di Paola